Director: Jean Cocteau
Writer: Jean Cocteau
DP: Henri Alekan
Editor: Claude Iberia
Score: Georges Auric
Producer: André Paulvé
Starring: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Marcel André, Mia Parély, Nane Germon, Michel Auclair
Length: 1 hr. 33 min.
Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête is based on a 400 year old fairy tale. This fairy tale, like most, has been adapted many times; fairy tales tend to have basic morals that make them timeless enough to survive through the ages. The moral of Beauty and the Beast, of course, is that inner beauty is more valuable than external beauty. However, Cocteau has built on top of this moral to say something more specific. In doing so, he has removed its timeless quality in favor of creating a heavily contextualized film, one that reflects the issues of the time and place in which it was made.
After World War II, France was coming off five years of German occupation. The nation had experienced a failure of authority when the unoccupied lands fell under the control of the Axis-friendly Vichy government. Many men were returning home from prisoner-of-war camps or brutal Nazi labor camps. Women who had been romantically involved with German soldiers were abused and shamed, accused of collaborating with the enemy.
None of this is represented directly in Cocteau's film, but he does show us a world of disorder in which conventional morality is overturned because of a failure of authority. The world of La Belle et la Bête contains only seven characters: Belle, her father, her two sisters, her brother Ludovic, a man named Avenant, and the Beast. Belle's father is a kind man, but weak-willed and a poor businessman. His inability to financially support his family has apparently left Belle's siblings with a lack of integrity; her brother engages in unscrupulous business and her sisters wantonly exploit what little remains of their father's wealth. Instead of Belle's father, they turn to Avenant to be their de facto leader, a man who proudly allows himself to be governed by selfish impulses. They seem to understand that their actions are disreputable, but they don't care. They hold a cynical view of the world in which any attempt to have principles is seen as a put-on.
If Belle's father is the abject failure of French authority and her siblings are the amorality of the people arising from a lack of faith in authority, Belle is the one who must bear the weight of all this disarray. She literally takes on her father's burden early in the film: Her father faced the penalty of death for stealing a rose from the Beast, but Belle went to the Beast's castle in his place.
Belle, her siblings, and her father all exist in a simple everytown, a community that is apparently normal in all respects other than the unfortunate lack of empathy shared by its members. This community makes up one half of the film's world. The other half is the realm of the Beast. The Beast's home is otherworldly and unnatural; the inside of his castle looks less like the interior of a building than a black void with objects floating around inside of it, and the walls are adorned with moving arms and faces. The Beast's gardens seem to extend into deep, impossibly large forests while still remaining within the castle walls. Everything appears to have a faint glow or be cloaked in a layer of fog.
We are introduced to the Beast's realm when Belle's father accidentally wanders into it. When we first enter the Beast's world, Cocteau insists on its magnificence. The camera marvels at the architecture, the statues, and the gardens while the score swells triumphantly. Belle's father regards everything with awe and wonder - until he sees the Beast, whose appearance disturbs him and turns the magical world terrifying. The human characters in the film all see the Beast as a distortion, and when they learn of the vast power and wealth that exist in his territory, they judge him to be the master of a power he doesn't deserve.
To them the Beast is an undesirable Other, and they despise him. And although the film as a whole frames the Beast in a positive light, he despises himself; he hates his inhuman appearance, and he hates his need to act like an animal. He can only eat by hunting down animals in the forest and tearing them apart with his bare hands. When he does, smoke emanates from his body. The image of smoke rising off of the Beast's body is simultaneously an outwardly visible reminder of his beastliness and an implicit reminder of the pain he feels because of that beastliness. The way he needs to live causes him agony.
When Belle comes to his castle, the Beast is not only kind to her, he is submissive. He cannot let her leave because he is a slave to supernatural powers beyond his control, and Belle is beholden to the stipulations of her agreement to stay with the Beast, but he is apologetic and deferential. He goes out of his way to avoid frightening or otherwise disturbing her. He seems desperate to win the approval of someone who comes from the outside world, but not at all confident in his ability to do this.
By establishing the Beast's realm as a place separate from the rest of the world, and using the rest of the world to reflect the social state of post-war France, Cocteau implies that there is an alternative to the spiteful and unstable worldview that some French citizens had developed. It's worth noting that Avenant and the Beast are played by the same person. Belle's father, Avenant, and the Beast all are placed in dominant positions, but exercise their power very differently. If Belle's father reflects the failure of the old French authority, and Avenant reflects the regrettable state of the new French authority, then perhaps the Beast is meant to suggest that there is potential for another, better kind of authority to exist. In this case, Cocteau's adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is not just about the acceptance of inner beauty, but the acceptance of something that breaks societal conventions for the sake of finding a better world.
The film ends the way the fairy tale ends, but Cocteau was not pleased with this. He wanted his own ending, and it's easy to see why; the imagery of the ending undercuts the core statement of the narrative, and makes it difficult to be emotionally invested with the characters. Still, it doesn't significantly rob the film of meaning, and if Cocteau was undermined by a studio mandate, it's possible that proves his point.